Salad Days – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Book and Lyrics: Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade

Music: Julian Slade

Director: Bryan Hodgson

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

One can’t help wondering what on earth Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds were on when they wrote Salad Days in a month in 1954 to form the summer show at the Old Vic. Written at a time when Britain was still in the grip of austerity but beginning to look ahead with confidence, this bright, breezy and, well, bonkers, show was an instant hit and became the longest-running West End musical (until overtaken by Oliver!) with 2283 performances. It split opinion, but it nevertheless received 21 curtain calls on opening night and is, allegedly at any rate, the Queen’s favourite musical.

Slade and Reynolds successfully captured the zeitgeist of that post-war period – the idea of looking forward to a better future and not back (as epitomised in our main protagonists’ number, We Said We’d Never Look Back) with excitement. It references much of the popular culture of the time, including, bizarrely, Hollywood Sci-Fi movies of the period.

The plot is so thin as to make gossamer seem positively coarse by comparison. Jane and Timothy meet after graduation. His family want him to get a job, while she is expected to marry well. To that end, Jane’s mother is planning a huge party to launch her daughter on to the scene, and Timothy is given appointments with his many uncles who have high powered jobs, for example, as the Minister of Pleasure and Pastime. To avoid the pressure, they decide to marry in secret – they are, after all, quite fond of one another and maybe love will follow (spoiler: it does) – and Timothy decides to take the first job on offer – which happens to be to look after an outdoor piano for a month for a passing tramp who pays them £7 a week to do so.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help as neither is brave enough to tell their families so preparations for the party and the interviews go ahead regardless.

It turns out that the piano is magical: when it’s played, hearers find themselves dancing involuntarily and having their spirits lifted. Timothy, Jane and new friend Troppo (a mute mime skilled in charades) make a decent living passing round the hat. And after the interval, things just get sillier when the Minister of Pleasure and Pastime feels this piano is a threat and tries to ban it; our heroes look for opportunities to compromise the minister; the piano disappears; help comes from a highly improbable source. There’s a touch of deus ex machina as the threads are resolved, but by then, no-one cares – one has been whisked along by some jolly, strange parallel universe in which anything can happen.

The songs are cheery and foot-tapping, if not especially memorable, though We Said We’d Never Look Back and We Don’t Understand Our Children hit a (very) slightly more serious note. Mark Anderson and Jessica Croll as Timothy and Jane respectively bring the right level of optimistic naivety to their rôles with fine singing voices. Nathan Elwick’s PC Boot is gloriously silly, with limbs that appear not to have been assembled in quite the right order and an expressive face apparently made of indiarubber. Wendi Peters hilariously channels her inner Hyacinth Bucket as Jane’s mother, while Callum Evans’ physicality truly brings Troppo to life. It’s hard to keep track of many of the minor characters, especially Timothy’s uncles, but all play their parts with gusto and a sense of joy.

The set is simple, perhaps overly so. There’s a plain backdrop and a bandstand that is also pressed into service as a nightclub stage and a flying saucer. Although furniture and props are slickly moved in and out in transitions, it’s never quite convincing enough.

It’s easy to criticise the story, especially from the standpoint of sixty years down the line, but the fact remains that at the interval and the end, the audience leaves with broad smiles – and maybe a touch of disbelief – so the magnificent silliness of Salad Days is perhaps striking a chord once again. It may not be great art, but it does provide an undemanding night of pleasure.

Runs Until 22 September 2018 and on tour  | Image (from 2017 production): Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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